What’s the truth about migration from sub-Saharan Africa? It’s not what you think

The first three months of 2023 were the deadliest in six years for migrants attempting to cross the central Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, according to an April report by the International Organization for Migration, an agency of the United Nations.

Over the period, the agency recorded 441 deaths along the route, the highest number since 2017, when 742 migrants lost their lives over the same period. Even grimmer, this latest tally brings the total number of missing and dead migrants in the Mediterranean to more than 26,000 since 2014.

Unsurprisingly, these seemingly senseless deaths always grab attention. It is arguably the most visible aspect of illegal immigration into Europe, and a frequent flashpoint of argument about the phenomenon.

The fact that most of these vessels depart from Africa has also focused a lot of this attention on illegal migration from Africa. It is partly for this reason that a lot of reports touching on African demography, like this one [PDF] from the National Bureau of Economic Research, an American thinktank, tend to bring up the spectre of future mass migrations into Europe.

The tragedies have also spurred several policy responses aimed at reducing the number of Africans making the perilous journey. In 2015, for instance, the European Union set up the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) to “address the root causes of irregular migration.”

It has spent nearly €5 billion through 2022 on various initiatives in a number of African countries, from reinforcing government institutions in Somalia to attempts to “build resilience and economic opportunities” in Ethiopia.

Given this, one would assume that Africans dominate the phenomenon of illegal migration into Europe. Unfortunately, however, this is one of those topics on which the lie has run around the world long before the truth could even put on its shoes.

For not only do Africans (especially Sub-Saharan Africans) make up a relative minority of illegal migrants crossing into Europe, but the vast majority of Africans who do move to Europe do so legally.

According to a January 2023 report from Frontex, the EU’s border agency, around 330,000 people crossed into the EU irregularly in 2022, a 64 percent increase from 2021. The bulk of these crossings took place along the eastern route, across the Western Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, nearly half of the total number of illegal migrants were Syrian, Afghan and Tunisian Nationals.

In fact, Sub-Saharan Africans were heavily outnumbered in all but two of the six major routes delineated by Frontex. These two routes, the Western Mediterranean (across the strait of Gibraltar) and the Western African (into the Canary Islands), accounted for a total of just over 30,000 migrants, less than 10 percent of the total. What’s more, both routes recorded decreases in 2022, relative to 2021.

According to a 2019 Pew Research report, sub-Saharan Africans accounted for only 17 percent of the 3.9 to 4.8 million illegal immigrants resident in the European Union in 2017. This was in contrast to 30 percent from the Asia-Pacific region, 23 percent from non-EU European countries, and 21 percent from the Middle East and North Africa.

Of course, 17 percent of 4.8 million is no small number. But keep in mind that nearly three million foreigners, many of them Sub-Saharan Africans, legally settle in Europe each year. As of 2017, according to another Pew report, 4.15 million Africans lived in Europe, most of them legally, having come “as international students and resettled refugees, through family reunification and by other means.”

Even more, the number of sub-Saharan migrants crossing into Europe illegally has actually declined since 2015, according to Frontex. Importantly, this has happened in tandem with a significant increase in the total number of sub-Saharans migrating to Europe via licit means, as well as a rise in the number of displaced Africans.

More importantly, the decline in illegal crossings had little to do with any specific policies. A 2022 DW review of the earlier-mentioned EUTF, for instance, found that it “did not have a measurable impact on migratory movements toward the European Union.” Few reports have attempted to explain the decline, perhaps because few people know that it has happened in the first place.

This is not to downplay the problem of illegal immigration. Aside from the peril faced by migrants who choose this route, as well as the criminal network of people traffickers, there is also the fact that Europe is made up of sovereign countries, and they have the right to police their borders.

Additionally, I do not mean to imply that the phenomenon will disappear any time soon. For various reasons, large number of Africans would migrate to Europe if it were easier, as illustrated by a 2018 Pew survey, which found that up to 75 percent of the people in some countries would move to either Europe or the United States if they had the chance.

However, this is an attempt to put the problem into context. Illegal immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t nearly as big a problem as the news reports often make it seem -- and it is declining. It is also supplies a relatively small portion of the migrants who do move to Europe from Africa.

That is the truth.

And here is another truth: as Europe’s population declines and ages, it will need increasing numbers of skilled and semi-skilled foreigners to fill up the gaps left in its shrinking labour force.

For good or ill, many of these people will come from Africa.


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